In the first line of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, we are introduced to the main character of the story. In fact, the whole Bible is the telling of one story – His story.
The story, incidentally, is still unfolding. So, what you read in the Bible is a mixture of history and prophecy, and it takes some discernment to tell the difference.
The Hebrew word used here is Elohim, which is in the plural. But Moses was by no means implying that God is many. The “im” at the end of words denote greatness rather than plurality. The same word is used to refer to the false gods worshipped by the pagans of the day.
Next, the narrative describes the Creation process. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters.” (Gen 1:1-2) In the midst of the darkness, the Spirit of God was hovering, moving as if to survey the landscape or readying himself to carry out God’s orders. Then the word came: “Let there be light…” And the rest is history. It might seem like a straightforward account but it isn’t so. At least that’s what Johnny Miller and John Soden tell us in their book “In The Beginning…We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in its original context”. I will be quoting extensively from this book.
The Concordist Approach to Interpretation
One of the ways to approach Genesis 1 is the concordist approach, which means, essentially, to read the passage as if it is in concord (agreement) with a scientific worldview – namely, the reader’s (our worldview). Young Earth Creationists are one kind of concordist. They read Genesis 1 through a particular set of scientific lenses. They believe that Moses teaches that creation took place recently over a period of six twenty-four-hour days. Old Earth Creationists, on the other hand, believe that the Bible agrees with what modern science teaches and that, therefore, each days stands for an immensely long period of time. Both views take Scripture seriously, and both believe in supernatural intervention in creation. Both, however, read the biblical text through the worldview of a modern person. What we should be doing is to read it through the worldview of an ancient Israelite.
Was the earth created in Seven days?
Most translations of Genesis 1 do not accurately represent the Hebrew text when it comes to the numbering of the days of creation. Most translations refer to “the first day,” “the second day,” “the third day,” and so on. In fact, the Hebrew text lacks the article “the” on days 1 through 5. It is only when we come to day 6 that the definite article is used: “And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (v.31).
Commentator Bruce Waltke suggests, “The lack of the definite article on each of the first five days suggests they may be dischronologized,” By dischronologized, Waltke means that the days may not be intended to be understood as a linear chronology. Instead, each of the days is arranged like a separate photo that is to be part of a collected arrangement on a wall. All of the photos are interconnected in their subject matter, each containing a part of the final whole. Their purpose is to lead the eye and the mind to the most complete picture or pictures. The issue is not when the pictures were taken but how they contribute to the overall arrangement and meaning of the display.
The Purpose of Genesis
Why did Moses write Genesis? Did Moses know that he was writing the first book of the Bible, as we understand it? The answer is probably no, but may be yes. No, because it is highly doubtful that he thought in terms of a sacred story that would stretch out for centruies after him, and that would eventually encompass sixty-six sacred writings over a period of about 1,500 years. But yes, in that he could have been very aware that he was penning sacred writings. Moses was a prophet, and he knew it. God is said to have communicated directly with Moses – “mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles” (Num 12:7-8).
Hence, the way Moses wrote Genesis was by directly divine inspiration – God breathed – as there was no way that Moses could have known what transpired before his time, except by verbal history that was passed on from one generation to the next. this method would typically result in some attrition of facts, yet Moses’ account was rich in detail, at least the details that mattered most.
The book of Genesis traces the history of humanity from the creation of Adam, to the call of Abraham out of Mesopotamia, to the expansion of his family his son Isaac, his grandsons Jacob and Esau, and then to their multiplied offspring. But even as humanity expands, the focus of the narrator always narrows onto the specific descendant who shoulders the blessing of furthering the promised line:Seth, not Cain; Shem, not Ham or Japheth; Abraham, not Nahor and Haran; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. The history is meant to be read as theology. God was calling to himself a special people to represent his name and so establish blessing on the face of the earth.
Such a people needed a home, a land to call their own. God promised to give such a land to Abraham and to his offspring (Gen 12:1-3), and God identified that land roughly speaking as the land known as Canaan. There was one problem, though. This land was not vacant, waiting to be occupied by the Israelites. It was populated by many other peoples who had their own claims to the land, and their own gods and customs. And to possess the land they needed to be in the land. But when Genesis was composed, they were not in Canaan.
After the death of Abraham, there was a period of severe famine in Canaan, and God provided for the survival of Abraham’s offspring by preparing for them to be fed and protected in Egypt. The extraordinary rise of Joseph from slave to prince paved the way for the fledgling “nation” – then only seventy strong – to survive, to thrive, to expand, and to unite.
They settled in Egypt for four centuries and we know very little about their lives during this period except that they were subject to slave labour towards the end (Ex 1:8-11). They began to cry out to God, and he answered them.
Up till that point of time, the Israelites had not forgotten about God. They feared him as Elohim. It was time for them to know him by his covenant name, Yahweh, and understand that they have an inheritance waiting for them (Exodus 3:15). It was Joseph who reminded them of this. “God will visit you and bring you out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Gen 50:24).
Arrangement of Genesis 1
The offspring of Abraham had spent four hundred years in Egypt. Naturally, they would have been exposed to Egyptian religion, including Egyptian beliefs about creation. In fact, Joshua 2:4:14 tells us that long after the exodus Israel still had Egyptian gods in their pantheon:
Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.
Genesis 1 is a recasting of the events of creation in order to argue strongly for a different theology. Moses goes beyond arguing against Egyptian deities and religious perceptions; he also presents a positive theology. To put another way, Moses starts with what they know (or think they know), using a familiar vocabulary, in order to teach them what they need to know. He contextualises the theology they must understand, beginning with aspects of their worldview that he can use as a frame both to build their understand and to tear down their misunderstanding.
Egypt was not the only influence on Israel’s understanding of creation. The ancient Near East was not a collection of completely isolated nations; religious myths and beliefs flowed freely between peoples from different backgrounds. The next image presents the Parallels Between Biblical, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian Creation Accounts.
In summary, Genesis 1 was written to the ancient Israelites as a way of introduction to their God and the eternal covenant they had with him. Genesis 1 teaches theology, not science. When reading this portion of Scripture, the ancient Israelites never came to the conclusion that the world was created in seven days. Rather, they came to see that the world was created by One who was immensely more powerful that the Egyptian gods.
This is an example of what members of the Torah Club will learn. Contact me if you wish the Torah Club today.